Archive for November 2008

Milk

November 26, 2008

“You’re so adorable,” says Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) to Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) about half an hour into Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Well, so is Milk himself, and so is just about everyone else in the movie. Van Sant has made the film — and Dustin Lance Black has written it — with intelligent flair, and it’s certainly enjoyable. Yet part of me feels it’s a bit of a soft-serve. Even the bigots in the movie are adorably blinkered in their thinking, or at least they would’ve seemed that way if not for the recent passage of Proposition 8 in Milk’s own adopted state. Milk was obviously in the can long before Prop 8 went through, so its view of the homophobes of the ’70s has an amused distance: See, isn’t this darling, this is what people used to believe. Yeah, well, they still do.

Penn pours himself into the skin of Harvey Milk with what I can only call flamboyantly homosexual machismo. Penn is so ruggedly heterosexual in real life that he can afford to smooch and snuggle with young men onscreen and look completely comfortable. I generally hate movie love scenes between two heterosexual male actors, because they tend to be awkward — past a certain point, you can feel the actors forcing themselves into it. Van Sant, however, seems to have created a safe space for Penn and the other heteros playing gays — Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco — to tap into their inner queers. The sex in Milk, though not explicit, is hungry and happily hedonistic, pre-AIDS and without shame. The gay men in the movie have all flocked to San Francisco in order to finally be themselves; they fall into sex, and also ironic stereotypes, with relief.

I doubt whether a movie not written and directed by gay men could’ve expressed the heady sexual freedom of gay Frisco in the ’70s with such good humor and understanding. But Milk goes beyond sex, as Milk himself did, to argue for the humanity of gay people — to desexualize them in the hetero public eye, sort of, to define them in some way other than what they did in bed. In this telling, Milk is awfully cuddly, though with a sharp wit usually drawn verbatim from the actual Milk’s public statements or debates. Penn plays him as a sort of mother hen to all the gay boys, first and foremost, and then to any other disenfranchised citizens. Penn immerses himself pretty impressively, right down to what I’m sure is an ad-lib when a baby starts crying in mid-take and Penn’s Milk coos, “Oh, but you had such a beautiful christening!”

The baby is the son of Dan White (Josh Brolin), Milk’s fellow City Supervisor, who infamously murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). According to Van Sant and Black, the devoutly religious White was a latent or closeted homosexual who couldn’t stand watching Milk succeed by being honest about himself. It’s a bit facile; a lot of factors were in play, including White’s frustration at not making enough money to support his family, as well as the recent deaths of 909 people at Jonestown (which the movie leaves out), a horror that blew every mind in the city (Jim Jones had been friendly with Moscone, and Milk had defended Jones to Jimmy Carter in a letter). Whatever White’s actual motives, Josh Brolin plays him as compassionately as he played George W. Bush, finding the tormented humanity in a stoic, unreflective politician. At times, his White seems to want to reach out to Milk, who never knows quite what to make of him.

Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, interesting if a bit dry, gave a historical context for Milk and his achievements; Milk offers a more personal context, giving equal time to Milk’s activities as aspiring and then successful City Supervisor and to Milk’s mostly dysfunctional romantic relationships. If you somehow combined the two films, I guess you’d have the perfect Harvey Milk film. Oddly, though, we come away from Milk with much stronger impressions of Emile Hirsch’s dismissive-brat-turned-committed-activist Cleve Jones or Diego Luna’s neurotically needy Jack Lira — or even Brolin’s Dan White, cracking slowly at the seams — than we do of Penn’s Milk, a satyr-martyr who barely stops to breathe. (Two separate boyfriends have to more or less force him to sit down and have a meal.) We feel warmth from Milk, but he’s a smiling blur; Penn brings a lot of physical effort to the job, but Milk never quite snaps into focus. We start to feel glad-handed, as if the movie were a Milk volunteer pressing a pamphlet on us.

There’s a tiny subplot that feels too Hollywood, though it actually happened (it’s recounted in Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street). Milk gets a late-night call from a gay kid in Minnesota whose parents are about to institutionalize him. Milk advises the kid to get the hell out of there on a bus, and then Van Sant cuts to a wide shot of the kid in a wheelchair — our hearts sink; the poor kid’s not going anywhere. Much later in the film, as Milk is celebrating the defeat of Proposition 6 (which would’ve made it legal to fire gay teachers), he gets another call from the same kid — who made it out of Minnesota to L.A., registered to vote, and cast his ballot against Prop 6. This was obviously too good for Van Sant and Black to leave out, and the kid is supposed to stand in for all the gay kids who drew courage and empowerment from Milk’s example. Harvey Milk was an icon and a hero, no question, but why has the movie made him into a teddy bear? The actual Milk was said to be abrasive and temperamental, sometimes difficult to work with. Which is fine; a person can be a prick and a slickster and still make significant societal gains — it probably helps if he’s a prick. The movie, though, looks at Milk with stars in its eyes.

Which, I suppose, is understandable. Harvey Milk was famous not only in San Francisco but throughout the country. We have yet to see his like again. Who’s out there on the bullhorn for gay rights? Whose picture in a newspaper will inspire a scared gay kid to come out? The filmmakers sand the edges off their hero, perhaps to reanimate him for a new generation. Maybe a complex human portrait isn’t what’s needed now. Milk always said “I want to recruit you,” and Van Sant and Black take Milk’s tumultuous life and fashion it into a recruiting poster. If it emboldens even one gay kid to leave the boonies and become a foot soldier in the war against Prop 8, so be it. But art never has deserved brownie points for good intentions.

Twilight

November 21, 2008

Twilight opens with Kristen Stewart, the new princess of the flat affect, morosely narrating “I never gave much thought to how I would die.” That’s your first clue — if the desaturated gray-on-white cinematography hadn’t already clued you in — that this isn’t going to be a bubbly night at the movies. Adapted from the first novel in Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular series, Twilight is a quiet and unemphatic smudge of a movie, wherein a human girl, Stewart’s Bella Swan, moves to a rainy Washington State town and encounters a strange boy, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Edward is obsessed with Bella the minute he lays his color-changing eyes on her, because he can read everyone else’s mind but hers. Oh, yes, and he’s also a vampire. But that’s okay, because the vampire clan he’s from are “vegetarians” — they feed on animal blood, not human. There are other local vampires, though, who aren’t so nice. Bella thinks Edward is awfully pretty, especially when he twinkles in the daylight.

Yes, this material is terribly purple. And it shrewdly targets the same soft spots of the same demographic — teenage girls and wishful-thinking older women — that has kept doomed-romance stories going since Tristan and Isolde. But the gifted director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) approaches Twilight as another portrait in her gallery of teen angst. She doesn’t go at the film as the first in a likely lucrative franchise; she makes it a Catherine Hardwicke film, convincing in small, everyday details. She doesn’t quite know what to do with the supernatural elements, which always seem to throw off the tone, though the scenes of Edward taking Bella on a hop between various high trees are nicely accomplished.

Edward must protect Bella from the bad vampires, but also from himself. Wearing his hair in a James Dean near-pompadour, Robert Pattinson speaks in an intimate hush, both surprised and frightened by letting someone else in. He doesn’t look like much in photos, but he knows how to smolder; he does most of the heavy lifting, while Kristen Stewart, largely so laid-back she’s hardly there, throws away her lines as if she wanted to get back to her trailer as soon as possible. Edward complains that he can’t read Bella; we know how he feels.

The film’s gun-metal look rubs the eyes raw after a while, but Twilight is mostly elegantly put together, though anything having to do with the pack of bad vampires is disastrous — there’s a ridiculous West Side Story shot of the rival vamps growling at each other. Other than that, the movie is appealingly low-key, with eternal love blossoming among the grim rainclouds and plaid flannel of the Pacific Northwest. As usual, Hardwicke seems most interested in the rapport between teenage girls, and Bella’s cop father, a stoic fellow with undertones of sadness, is handled sensitively.

It’s entirely possible to admire Twilight for its directorial craft without falling for Stephenie Meyer’s particular brand of forbidden love. I’ll be curious to see whether the other directors of this franchise can find interesting things in it or just whorishly bow to the bestselling material.

Quantum of Solace

November 16, 2008

The best parts of Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film, are the stylized-as-usual opening credits, which promise a lush and explosive evening, and the familiar gun-barrel bit with the classic 007 theme at the end. These are the only parts that feel like a James Bond film. The rest is filler, which means the entire actual movie is filler. It is incomprehensible, blandly motivated, and flat-out dull. I’m one of those moviegoers who don’t have a great emotional stake in 007 but believe that if a Bond flick isn’t going to be awesomely ridiculous or ridiculously awesome, there’s little point to it.

The series had in recent years gotten bloated and decadent, though that was more a reflection on the weak scripts than on the traditional Bond style. So, with 2006’s Casino Royale and now Quantum of Solace, which is more like Casino Royale Vol. 2, we get a grim, stripped-down Bond (Daniel Craig). As many have pointed out, the Bond series has rebooted by imitating one of its own imitators, the Bourne series with Matt Damon. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the escapism, the ludicrous plots, the stunts that prompt gasps and laughter? Recasting Bond as a gritty football hooligan in a suit is like performing Wagner with a symphony of kazoos.

This Bond kills assassins by stabbing them in the femoral artery, then shuffling away with a scowl; Sean Connery was no less brutal, but somehow added suavity and humor to the violence. It doesn’t help that the carnage’s orchestrator is hack director Marc Forster, who skips from genre to genre (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner) without offering any particular point of view. Here, Forster splinters the action into so many unreadable shards. When I don’t care about what’s happening, that’s one thing. When I can’t see what’s happening, that’s another thing. When I don’t care that I can’t see what’s happening, that’s movie death.

Bond’s mission here is to crack the terrorist organization Quantum and avenge the previous Bond girl (Eva Green) who died in Casino Royale. Sounds simple, but the Bond movies aren’t happy unless they complicate things unnecessarily, so there are double-crosses and globe-hopping, all of which plays as padding. In other Bond movies, we at least had absurd set pieces or eye candy to pass the time. But the Bond girls have gotten duller along with their surroundings, as have their names (“Strawberry Fields” is the best the writers can come up with here). And who doesn’t miss those glorious Ken Adam sets, instead of the grunting fisticuffs played out in squalid hotel rooms that we get here?

Despite its promisingly oblique title, Quantum of Solace is all on the surface, and those who honk on about Bond’s complex emotional progress in this movie are delusional; Daniel Craig is a stiff in a suit here, and it occurred to me that, between these new straight-faced 007 films and anguished epics like The Dark Knight and the upcoming Watchmen, fanboys increasingly prefer their thrills somber and “realistic.” A fanciful throwback like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with its much-derided nuke-the-fridge gag, doesn’t fit well in this clenched new environment, and neither would the old James Bond. But if Quantum of Solace refuses to offer style, vision, or excitement, why is it there? Why, other than a big paycheck for Columbia and MGM every few years and a regular fix for 007 die-hards, is this series still going?

Book Review: The Total Film-Maker

November 12, 2008

jlcmnsb_3It’s fitting, perhaps, that I first heard about Jerry Lewis’ The Total Film-Maker in Bill Griffith’s absurdist comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.

Griffith was fixated on one line from the book’s prologue: “You have to know all the technical crap as well as how to smell out the intangibles, then go make the birth of a simian under a Jewish gypsy lying in a truck in Fresno during a snowstorm prior to the wheat fields burning while a priest begs a rabbi to hug his foot.”

Huh?

When you read the book, though, that slice of advice actually makes sense. To translate from Jerry-ese to English: “Learn the basics, then do all the weird stuff you want.”

First published in 1971, drawn from many hours of tape recordings of Jerry’s film course at USC, The Total Film-Maker is probably the most readable and common-sensical book any aspiring director could own. Unfortunately, it’s out of print. No matter. If you want to make movies, do what you have to do to find a copy. If you don’t want to make movies, but simply want a fascinating account of Lewis’ filmmaking (sorry, “film-making”) career with dozens of examples of what he had to do to get film in the can, find a copy. If you’re a Jerry fan, find a copy. You can’t have mine.

Spiked with bits of Jerry’s inimitable verbal humor (on shooting inserts: “Some directors want to shoot everything in their picture, including the mongoose’s armpit”), the book is divided into “Production,” “Post-Production,” and “Comedy,” the third section focusing on how to shoot funny stuff. Now, some of the specifics are outdated these days. Hell, we’re talking 37 years ago. But Jerry’s tough-minded creative advice still holds true. Even if you don’t want to make slapstick pitched at six-year-olds, you’d do well to heed a lot of his guidelines, particularly his chapter on dealing with actors. (As an actor himself, he’s seen it from both sides.)

Two things loudly unmentioned here: Dean Martin, and Lewis’ notoriously, painfully aborted labor of love The Day the Clown Cried, which remains the Holy Grail for collectors of rare cinema (and which, in any case, hadn’t happened yet at the time the lectures were being given and assembled). In the “good call” department, he writes this in the epilogue: “Recently I saw a film made by a twenty-one-year-old, Steven Spielberg. It was twenty-four minutes of film called Amblin’, produced for around $17,000. It rocked me back. He displayed an amazing knowledge of film-making as well as creative talent.” You get Jerry’s take on other directors, too: Kubrick’s 2001 (“a brilliant film”), Hitchcock’s Psycho (“He crossed the line of decency”).

Jerry is rarely given credit for being a technical pioneer. On the cover of The Total Film-Maker is the massive $900,000 indoor set he had built for The Ladies’ Man, the biggest studio set ever filmed up to that point. On the same movie, Jerry started using a video camera next to the film camera, a process that changed filmmaking and became an industry standard. Even if you have little use for his actual movies, the man has contributed.

Yet he has never been honored at the Oscars*, and he has not directed a feature film in 25 years (1983’s Smorgasbord); he has not shot a frame of film at all in 15 years (he helmed a segment of 1993’s anthology Comment Vont les Enfants). The disappointment of The Day the Clown Cried killed him a little, I think. But in this book, published only a year before that disaster, Jerry is still madly in love with film and film-making, and the love is infectious. Some enterprising publisher of film-related books (say, Applause) needs to bring The Total Film-Maker back into print, with perhaps a new introduction by Jerry (or maybe by Martin Scorsese, who directed Jerry so memorably in The King of Comedy), so it can be in bookstores alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew inspiring a whole new generation to get out there and — as Jerry exhorts — “make film, shoot film, run film.”

*Since this review ran, Lewis has indeed received an Oscar — a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his telethon work, not a lifetime achievement award for his film work.

Dear Zachary

November 9, 2008

Kurt Kuenne’s overpowering documentary Dear Zachary is getting a slow national release in the major cities; word is that it will be shown on MSNBC in December and come out on DVD in February. Whichever way you end up seeing it, you should.

Dear Zachary begins as a requiem of sorts for Kuenne’s childhood friend Andrew Bagby, who, evidence strongly suggests, was murdered at age 28 by his ex-girlfriend, 40-year-old Shirley Turner. Collecting reminiscences from Andrew’s friends all over the country, Kuenne never hears a bad word about Andrew, the sort of affable guy — he looked like a milder, less devious Jack Black — who naturally draws people to him.

Including, unfortunately, psychos like Shirley Turner. What did Andrew see in her? He was hefty and self-deprecating, and the intensity of her feelings for him may have overridden his misgivings — until things got too intense and he broke things off. She drove sixteen hours, got him alone in a parking lot, and very likely shot him five times. Did she actually do it? The circumstantial evidence leaves little doubt. Yet after Turner fled to her native Newfoundland, she was released on bail. Oh, yes, and she was also pregnant with Andrew’s child; and when she gave birth to their son, Zachary, she was given custody, over the strenuous objections of Andrew’s grief-stricken parents David and Kate.

Once Zachary enters the picture, Kuenne turns his project into a sort of scrapbook for the boy, filled with testaments from everyone who knew and loved Andrew. Since Andrew was also a doctor, and a damn good one, we even hear from patients grateful for his attentive care. Meanwhile, David and Kate are forced to be nice to the woman who they firmly believe murdered their son. It’s the only way they can spend even a minimal amount of time with their grandson, the only part of Andrew they have left apart from memories. We see footage of Turner playing with Zachary, and it’s fucking chilling, worse than any horror movie, because she’s clearly a sociopath using Zachary for her own ends. We see love everywhere else in the film except in Turner’s eyes; there’s truly nothing there except need and psychosis. And we see hatred, ferocious hatred, from David and Kate for the woman who ruined and continues to ruin their lives, and we understand it utterly. That they found it in themselves to put that aside for Zachary’s sake is astonishing. They, of course, would disagree; they had no choice in the matter.

The movie inspires disbelief as only a true story can. You’d laugh this twisted series of events — and it gets even more twisted and unspeakably tragic — off the screen at a fictional Hollywood film. But here it has the illogical horror of reality. Dear Zachary has been compared to Errol Morris’ seminal The Thin Blue Line, and the analogy holds water insofar as both films tackle unfathomable miscarriages of justice using stylized, subjective filmmaking. Dear Zachary moves at a sprint, its editing like a machine gun going off in your face — Kuenne might’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK a few times to figure out how to cram the most information into the least amount of screen time.

But the movie is far more than a true-crime report. Andrew becomes real to us via photos and footage from the teenage Kuenne’s backyard movies. His parents keep powering through the frustration and agony. We meet little Zachary, who is literally received by family and friends as the second coming of Andrew, since he looks so much like his father. Zachary represents hope, renewal. But this is life, not a Hollywood movie, and thus does not have a Hollywood ending.

Kuenne pulls out all the stops and leaves no manipulative stone unturned, but it’s almost impossible to begrudge him that. This is one of the most emotionally transparent films ever made, and its gallery of heroes and villains trumps most of what you’ll see in a multiplex this year.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

November 7, 2008

A lot of people worked extremely hard to make something unique on a budget of peanuts with Repo! The Genetic Opera. It’s being aggressively sold, from screening to screening, as the next big midnight movie, and a great many viewers are responding to the hype. Bless ‘em. I’m not on board for this ride, but bless ‘em.

Repo! is a macabre folly with mad-lab blood and guts, about a future in which people who can’t keep up the payments on their GeneCo organ transplants have ‘em yanked out. Nifty. But all of this is yoked to a shaky conceit — practically the entire thing is sung. It’s a rock opera, with emphasis on “opera” (hence the title, of course). It’d be nice if any of the songs were distinctive — only one, “At the Opera Tonight,” works up any sort of performance fervor — and they’re all in the same key, with guitars always grinding away underneath. The rhymes are simplistic, when they exist at all, and the meter is frequently awkward — a danger of forcing songs to carry too much expository weight. A movie like this reminds you of how good Joss Whedon is at this stuff, and how deceptively hard it is to do well.

Another reminder of Joss Whedon is Anthony Stewart Head, who first demonstrated his pipes to a wider audience on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Nathan Wallace, a doctor who keeps his daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega) in bedroom quarantine while moonlighting as a self-hating organ repo man, Head gnashes and wails his way through the movie, and his steadfast commitment to this absurdity is touching. Nathan is a classic mad-doctor monster with a guilty, anguished heart; Head makes him a fully rounded human being. But the rest of Repo! is tacky and busy, with loving close-ups of scalpels cleaving flesh that indicate the gross-out roots of director Darren Lynn Bousman (three of the Saw sequels). Visually, the movie comes on strong — framed by comic-book panels — though it only touches beauty in the scenes having to do with Sarah Brightman in full goth-geisha efflorescence as a blind opera singer who owes her restored sight to the villain of the piece, GeneCo honcho Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino).

I wish the execution matched the ideas (including a black market for painkillers injected into surgery patients), but too much of Repo! comes off as look-at-us, aren’t-we-diabolical. Truly, the movie doesn’t gain a lot from being set to music; after about half an hour it starts to feel like a gimmick. The very concept of a blood-spattered horror opera is meant to be so out-there it’s a ready-made cult flick, but cult movies work best when they amass their cults organically, luring the faithful gradually on its own merits, instead of going city to city hunting them down like some flyer-clutching street team. There are Repo! ringtones, and several of the characters have their own MySpace pages. The Rocky Horror Picture Show secured its reign without any of that, plus it was fun, and that’s where Repo!, for all its four-color bravado, comes up short.

But, again, it’ll strike some as the dark candy they’ve always wanted, while others, like me, will stand out in the cold wondering what the fuss is about. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging anyone their participatory midnight-movie thrills; it’s not as if there’s anything else serving the purpose out there. But when the midnight movie is accompanied by the makers telling you it’s a midnight movie, I smell hard-sell.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

November 2, 2008

It should come as no surprise that Kevin Smith’s new movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno isn’t really about making a porno. Sure, the eponymous characters Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), twentysomethings subsisting platonically in a ratty Monroeville apartment, do decide to put together a quickie piece of adult cinema to pay the bills. And yes, they follow through on this scheme. But Smith, the writer-director behind such amiably raunchy comedies as Clerks and Dogma, is a romantic sheep in wolf’s clothing, and the raunchiness usually always points toward gentler feelings.

Zack and Miri can also be taken, on some level, as Smith’s love letter to filmmaking. A motley crew, including “producer” Delaney (scene-stealing Craig Robinson) and “cameraman” Deacon (Jeff Anderson), moves heaven and earth to get a shabby-looking DIY flick in the can. This is pretty much the story of Smith’s $25,000 debut Clerks, which was shot in a convenience store where Smith worked at the time, much like the eventual porno filmed after hours at Zack’s Starbucks-like workplace.

The problem for Smith when he goes mooshy is that, like many another male scripter, he can’t really write women. Elizabeth Banks cashes in all her considerable charm as Miri, but she’s stuck in a lot of unplayable scenes (like the one at the class reunion where she drunkenly tries to seduce a classmate who turns out to be gay), and the movie has very little curiosity about Miri. Unless I blinked and missed it — or else it made so little impression that it didn’t register with me — we don’t even find out where she works. And I’d say she agrees to have sex on camera a little too readily. Smith writes the ideal women to hang out with but doesn’t quite know who they are.

Despite that, Zack and Miri plays well enough as an affectionate farce about what people will do to keep the lights and water on. It’s not an entirely credible scenario — with the amount of porn available for free online, who’s going to pay for a copy of Zack and Miri’s porno? — but it works as a metaphor for desperation in the current bleak economy. For the supporting cast, Smith brings in such secret weapons as Jason Mewes (as Lester the eager porn star) and actual porn queens Traci Lords and Katie Morgan. The movie plays like a conflation of John Waters’ last two efforts — 2000’s ode to guerrilla filmmaking Cecil B. DeMented and 2004’s fetishistic A Dirty Shame. The Kevin Smith gutter chat comes fast and furious, possibly expanding the parameters of how much raunchy dialogue one can pack into a film and still keep an R rating. It’s a companionable enough experience, even though the title should really be Zack Makes a Porno (with Miri). It takes two to tango, Kev. Maybe next time Smith will recruit a female screenwriter as good-hearted yet filthy-minded as he is, and he’ll really have something.


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